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Before the Rain

Before the Rain
Criterion 436
1994 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 113 min. / Street Date June 24, 2008 / 39.95
Starring Katrin Cartlidge, Rade Serbedzija, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska, Jay Villiers, Silvija Stojanovska
Cinematography Manuel Teran
Production Design Sharon Lomofsky, David Munns
Film Editor Nicola Gaster
Original Music Anastasia
Written by Milcho Manchevski
Produced by Judy Counihan, Cédomir Kolar, Sam Taylor, Cat Villiers
Directed by Milcho Manchevski

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Before the Rain is an impressively mature and affecting movie about war in the Balkans. Avoiding a standard drama of fear and reprisals, with bloody massacres that dull the nature of the conflict, Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski examines the roots of hatred in the hill country. Macedonia was not a direct part of the Serbo-Croatian horrors of the 1990s, and Manchevski strikes a cautionary note to say, "It could happen here." A priest proclaims, "Time never dies. The circle is never round." This bit of poetic license is echoed in various visuals and within the narrative style itself. The violence and tragedy isn't a cause-and-effect snowball, but an endless cycle where the order of events isn't important.


Part 1: Words. A young Macedonian priest under a vow of silence (Grégoire Colin) tries to hide the teenage Muslim girl Zamira (Labina Mitevska) from Christian gunmen seeking to avenge the death of a shepherd. Part 2: Faces. London photo editor Anne (Kaitlin Cartlidge of Naked) is encouraged by her mother to reconcile with her husband Nick (Jay Villiers), but gets caught with her boyfriend Aleksander, a native Macedonian and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer (Rade Serbedzija, Manifesto, Eyes Wide Shut, Memento). At a restaurant, Nick is overjoyed to hear that Anne is pregnant, but she tells him that she wants a divorce. A problem with a waiter, apparently a Macedonian immigrant, intrudes on their personal pain. Part 3: Pictures. Aleksander returns to Macedonia after fourteen years and finds his village split by feuds between Macedonian Christians and Albanian Muslims. He can't see his old girlfriend Hana (SIlvija Stojanovska), a Muslim, because members of her family are obsessed with killing Christians. When a shepherd is murdered with a pitchfork, Hana asks Aleksander to protect her daughter, Zamira. Aleksander must oppose his own kin to try and shield the terrorized captive girl.

Manchevski's film shows rural Macedonians as a proud, rugged people that persist in age-old religious and tribal hatreds. The land is beautiful and fertile but the social life is a wretched succession of vendettas and funerals. Families arm themselves with automatic weapons and harbor dark thoughts of revenge against their perceived enemies. As a young soldier tells Aleksander on the bus back to his hometown, go into the wrong place and you'll get your head chopped off.

Instead of focusing on one tragedy, Manchevski weaves a tale of complicated relationships between lovers and cousins. Religious and tribal hatreds are always at the boiling point, and individuals that cross the line suffer the worst consequences. We feel for all the players even as some storylines are forced into the background. Manchevski is careful not to let dramatics overshadow his theme, the nature of Balkan violence. In fact, attempting to "solve" the riddle of the narrative leads nowhere, as the film is ripe with intentional temporal inconsistencies. Aleksander's return to Macedonia in Part 3 comes after his visit with Anne in London ("She died in a taxi"), yet he becomes involved in events that precede the action of Part 1. And that's just the beginning of the odd sequencing tricks. More than once, a character misses or refuses a phone call that, according to the film's inverted logic, may come from the past or the future.

Manchevski has a sensitive eye for his fellow Macedonians, and Before the Rain sketches a number of interesting characters. Protagonist Aleksander cares deeply about his old girlfriend Hana and risks his life for her daughter -- who is possibly also his daughter. But he behaves very ignobly toward his London girlfriend Anne, dropping in for fast sex and ditching her when she mentions her desire for a family. Aleksander is a foreigner in London, but his outside experiences make him a foreigner in his own land. He ends up committed to a moral position that he knows his own relatives will never accept. One can rape or murder "the enemy" with impunity, but trying to save a frightened girl jeopardizes the guilty status quo. Pride, honor and national identity distill into a general pigheadedness. The tribe becomes brutal for fear of appearing weak.

Photographer Aleksander specializes in war reportage, the film's least original idea. His ambivalence toward his work -- which wins him awards but does little more than market atrocities to curious readers -- belongs in something like 1983's Under Fire. Manchevski also quotes a scene in Volker Schlöndorff's Circle of Deceit, when Aleksander talks of a Christian militiaman executing a prisoner, just to give him a photo opportunity.

Manchevski plays the movie quote game, albeit far better than most. When the young couple flees the monastery we know they'll be at risk from bands of killers on both sides. It's not unlike John Huston's A Walk With Love and Death, where two young lovers are set adrift amid the horrors of the Hundred Years' War. Manchevski underscores his theme of cyclic violence with animal imagery suggested by Buñuel, Clouzot and Sam Peckinpah. A pea-brained young militiaman shoots his machine gun indiscriminately, and then uses it to blow a housecat to pieces. A clutch of callous children torture and roast turtles in a circle of fire, referencing the "circle that is never round" but also Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. In England, another unlucky turtle waits in a restaurant aquarium to be eaten.

That English episode is the most problematic. Manchevski's three chapter titles relate words, faces and pictures to acts of violence, and he interrupts the awkward domestic squabble in the restaurant with another Peckinpah-like massacre. The restaurant owner, an Irishman, is offended when Nick associates terrorism with Ulster, but the Macedonian conflict spills over into a senseless killing spree here as well. The scene is more than a little forced, but it's certainly a jolting surprise.

Manchevsky is more successful on his home turf, where he shows his countrymen lovingly giving birth to new lambs, and then contemplating raping a Muslim girl on general principles. A mailman whistles the theme from Butch Cassidy while riding his bicycle, and then segues into The Internationale. The rude lady in the rural post office has no intention of dealing with a phone caller who cannot speak her language. All seem oblivious or uncaring about the fact that their beautiful valley is ready to explode with internecine conflict. This is war not with armies but on a neighborhood and family level. The film expresses the pain, misery and hopelessness of it all, and makes any peaceful solution seem like a miracle.

Criterion's DVD of Before the Rain presents this stunningly beautiful film in a glowing enhanced transfer. The director appears on a commentary with film scholar Annette Insdorf, to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of the film and to tell the story of its production. Interesting actor Rade Serbedzija tells his story in a new interview, and we see coverage of the filming in a 1993 TV documentary. Raw behind the scenes footage has apparently been recovered from an old Electronic Press Kit.

The extras go into even more detail, with soundtrack-only excerpts highlighting the Macedonian band Anastasia, a gallery of the director's photographs, his music video Tennessee and more galleries of stills, storyboards and letters. Ian Christie contributes a concise liner note essay for the insert booklet. Criterion's disc producer is Debra McClutchy.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Before the Rain rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 4, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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